Propaganda or proper journalism? China’s media expansion in Africa

By James Wan*

Chinese media in Africa tends to take a different approach to other news organisations. This could be because of censorship, or it could be because Chinese media follow a different philosophy of journalism.


A newspaper vendor in Nigeria. Photograph by The Commonwealth.
A newspaper vendor in Nigeria. Photograph by The Commonwealth.

From huge infrastructure projects to ubiquitous cheap goods, evidence of China’s presence across Africa today is unavoidable. But over the past few years, there is one area in which China’s deepening footprint on the continent has been particularly notable − turn on the radio, switch on the TV, or check out the newsstands, and China’s expansion into Africa’s media is clear to see.

Chinese journalists have been present in Africa for a long time, but as the China-Africa relationship has flourished, there has been a concerted effort from Beijing to build its media agencies in Africa and around the world so they can compete with the likes of the BBC, CNN and Aljazeera. As many Western media houses have been cutting back on foreign reporting budgets, Beijing in 2009 allocated $7 billion to increasing China’s state-owned media presence around the world.

The effects have been impressive, not least in Africa. On television today, CCTV Africa’s host of programmes provide up-to-date coverage on a wide range of issues; stories from Xinhua feature frequently in national newspapers across the continent;  China Daily Africa rolls off the press once a week; and China Radio International confidently rides the African airwaves.

As many of these strides were first being made, many on the continent and beyond raised concerns about what they saw as the rise of Chinese “propaganda”. Beijing was clear about its desire to create a more positive view of China in Africa, and some feared that Chinese media would just churn out uncritical stories about China and the continent and that its reporters would be prohibited from covering controversial issues.

Now that these media organisations have settled in their environments years later, however, most journalists who have been working for them − the vast majority of whom are African − deny that this has been the case.

“I can guarantee you that we have been 100% in control of our own editorial content,” says Beatrice Marshall, the anchor of Talk Africa, CCTV Africa’s flagship news analysis show.  “Are there any red lines? Up until this point, absolutely not.”

Similarly, media experts who have conducted content analyses of Chinese media since their expansion on the continent note that they have covered several contentious issues and offered critical views, at least up to a point.

“If you look at Chinese news agencies in the early 1990s, there was no room at all for criticism of certain African leaders,” says Bob Wekesa, a research associate at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and expert on Chinese media. “Nowadays, they increasingly don’t shy away from this, though they might not go the whole hog. China still operates under a communist system in which criticism is not really appreciated and there are still no go zones.”

Wekesa’s study of Talk Africa, for instance, found that the show has not avoided controversial stories such as mining strikes in South Africa, political turmoil in Egypt and conflict in South Sudan. But his analysis also suggested that the activities of Chinese and African governments in attempting to address problems are almost always framed in a positive light.

Part of this may be down to the Chinese media’s stated goal of improving perceptions of China and the continent, an objective perhaps facilitated by African journalists who, if not directly influenced by Beijing, self-censor their stories to an extent. But according to some theorists, while it may be true in some cases, this reading as a whole may be overly reductive – the usual criticism of Chinese state-owned media being little more than propaganda may be missing an important point. Rather than simply being constrained, they suggest, Chinese media may also have a different philosophy of journalism to begin with.

“There are a lot of superficial opinions of Chinese media in the West in the same way that there are many superficial opinions of Western media in China, but the reality is more complex,” says Zhang Yanqiu, director of the Africa Communication Research Centre at the Communication University of China. According to her, the Western media typically adopts a kind of “watchdog” role, while Chinese media is closer to what she calls “constructive journalism”.

“Constructive journalism can be both positive and negative, but the purpose is to find solutions,” explains Zhang. “The idea is to give a new kind of balance and shine a new kind of light on the continent. Instead of just reporting on the situation, it asks ‘ how can we help them?’ The Western media may be telling the truth, but if you are telling the truth and things are just getting worse and people are afraid of travelling to Africa, for whose good is this?”

Constructive journalism therefore attempts to be more “solutions-based”, something that Marshall claims is at the heart of CCTV Africa’s ethos.

“When you look at Western media, a lot of the time their strategy is to be combative,” she says. “But what we want to do is say ‘this is the issue, this is the challenge, and this is how it’s being solved’ rather than getting people to argue.”

It is for this reason, she says, that CCTV Africa focuses on a wide range of developmental issues and why in its coverage of the run-up to the 2015 Nigerian elections, for instance, it focused on security measures put in place to help people vote rather than the securitythreats that might prevent them from voting. “It may be the same story, but the difference in framing is important,” she says.

The extent to which this approach is paying off in terms of attracting viewers varies across different African nations, but researchers have typically found that most viewers remain sceptical of Chinese state-owned media. Additionally, while sympathetic to the Chinese approach, Wekesa suggests “the people who seem to appreciate the positive or constructive journalism of Chinese media most are those who are in power and certain elites with close business interests with the Chinese.”

However, while Chinese media still struggles to present itself as credible to many audiences, it may already be changing Africa’s media landscape for the better, albeit indirectly.

“Both Western and Chinese media are problematic for different reasons, but there is also a lot that each can, and is, learning from the other,” says Wekesa. “For me, the ideal would be a mix of the more adversarial Western approach with the more constructive Chinese approach, and I think there is evidence of them being influenced by one another already.

“Ultimately, this can only be good for Africa and for Africa’s media.”

*Source African Arguments .James Wan is the editor of African Arguments. He is a fellow of the Wits University China-Africa Reporting Project. Follow him on Twitter at @jamesjwan.

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